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Two Pieces from Frisco City USA
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poetry That Redefines Reality

Are the cries of birds really cries of joy and ecstasy or are they cries of despair?
     Is life essentially tragic or comic, lyric or lurid? These are the master questions that have occupied master writers through the centuries. To laugh or not to laugh, to cry or not to cry, that is the question.
It's not enough to repeat the cliché that the thinking man laughs, the feeling man cries. The greatest poems in every language present us with some powerful answers, and the greatest writers are great ontologists.
     Perhaps Shakespeare said it better than anyone:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
     There is nothing new under the moon, but poetry is news when it articulates some new interpretation of reality or voices an old vision in a unique and unforgettable way. In a time when all the conventional standards for judging poetry have been more or less abandoned, a writer's take on reality is indeed a litmus test of his relative importance. Trendy writers and artists fade into the woodwork, while voices we never noticed surge forward.
     The stamp of radical imagination, of a unique view of reality, is unmistakable. It marks the genius and separates it from the pedestrian, common denominator of consciousness. When one comes upon a great text (poem or prose or painting) for the first time, one thinks, "I never saw the world, I never saw life like that before!" Many is the time someone has told me of some poem that forever changed their view of life, and their lives as well. Often it is not a whole poem but just a line, a phrase, an image or a figure of speech that does it, when the poet makes us see what is really on the end of our fork.
     It's almost impossible to pick examples that turn on everyone, since the effect of a poem is so subjective and different for everyone. Nevertheless, one could cite so many passages in Shakespeare's Sonnets, in the English Romantics, in Matthew Arnold, in William Butler Yeats, in Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edna St.Vincent Millay, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, and other superrealists and visionaries. (In the graphic arts, think of what Goya, Picasso, Magritte, the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the American abstract expressionists, the Pop artists did to our views of reality.)
     Such original conceptions of reality are after all why we read poetry or look at art--to throw some light on our own lives and loves, or somehow to fathom man's fate, to find clues to the meaning of our still mysterious existence on earth. We yearn for the epiphany that will reveal all.
     The way poets see nature and love has traditionally shaped their worldview, but modern industrial civilization has distanced us all from nature, if not from love. In the nineteenth century, poets relied heavily on the device of the "pathetic fallacy" in which nature is given human traits and emotions. The English and German Romantic poets gave nature an almost human sexual anima. Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther portrays nature as a mirror of the poet's unrequited love. And T.S. Eliot saw a dying nature in the modern metropolis, a wasteland in which his hero J. Alfred Prufrock led a life of ennui and frustration, if not sterility.
     Since Eliot's "defeated romanticism," modern poets have become ever more alienated from nature. Bertolt Brecht and Pier Paolo Pasolini saw the modern city as an inferno, while Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, and myriad other younger Americans have had increasingly black visions, with more still coming in "bad-rap" poetry at poetry slams, noir jazz, and grafitti by "taggers" in subways and buses. Their alienation is not only from nature but from society itself.
     Perhaps in the end it's up to the poets, songwriters, filmmakers, and conceptual artists to save us from a violent noir world, with some new truly lyric inspiration. The Beatles said, "We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow, submarine, yellow submarine. . . ." We need a new type of vehicle to escape like that. Perhaps some new poetic genius will arise and invent a new poetic vehicle to transport us, a grand new ontological vision.
     You could call this the "lyric escape"--something that poets have always indulged in, creating their own illusions to live by and denying the darkening plain of the "real" world. But is some ecstatic epiphany, revealing an ultimate reality, too much to expect?

Poetry and Autogeddon

Poets are supposed to be the antennae of the race. In 1958, in the first poem in A Coney Island of the Mind, I had a dubious vision of a concrete continent with freeways fifty lanes wide. But that was pure hyperbole, and naturally no one took it seriously.
     A decade ago a British poet, Heathcote Williams, published a book of poetry called Autogeddon. Here is one pithy part of it:
If an Alien Visitor were to hover a few hundred yards above the planet
It could be forgiven for thinking
That cars were the dominant life form,
And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell:
Injected when the car wished to move off,
And ejected when they were spent.
In 1885 Karl Benz constructed the first automobile.
It had three wheels, like a car for invalids,
And ran on alcohol, like many drivers.
Since then about seventeen million people have been killed by them
In an undeclared war,
And the whole of the rest of the world is in danger of being run over. . . .

     His prophecies of the future Armageddon of automobiles wasn't taken seriously, either. After all, since when were poets supposed to be describing the real world? It seems, however, that we've gone far beyond his antiquated vision. Like George Orwell with 1984, he didn't go far enough.
     Today, we in America, always the leaders of the free world, are reaping the fruits of this wonderful invention by Herr Benz, abetted and aided by one H. Ford and other sedentary geniuses of his ilk. Should I say we are reaping the bumper crop? We have surpassed the inventors' wildest dreams, and perhaps they will soon be turning in their graves, just as the inventors of the atom bomb are no doubt whirring in theirs.
     We happy few are the beneficiaries of the real miracles Detroit has created. Turn on the radio any morning at seven and hear about the glories of Autogeddon: wrecks on freeways as good as any conceptual sculpture, bridges and ramps clogged, traffic backed up twenty miles out, sirens and car alarms echoing like a symphony over the airwaves. It is indeed an epic scene for an epic poem. All the elements of a great tragedy or at least a great tragicomedy are present. And when the citizens' frustration builds up to road rage and there's a road kill, you have the perfect purgative effect that all great drama must have.
     But it is not all bad. There is a beauty in it, too. There is a poetry of driving that may escape many drivers, if not many poets. Even if you get hung up on a freeway for an hour or two in a ten-mile-long traffic jam, you can still observe the divine comedy of all the souls trapped in their cars. Or, to add drama to your poetry, once you do get into the city, you can almost run down a pedestrian or two, or a bicyclist. There's no more poetic way to scare the life out of a native in a crosswalk (who may be in the right, but will end up dead wrong). Or you can terrorize a driver by tailgating her and flashing your lights on and off.
     There's nothing to stop you when there're no cops around. There's no book of etiquette for drivers. Miss Manners has few car manners--there's just no tradition for it. We've progressed so fast that we haven't had time to create one. No one is taught that it is simply bad form to blow your horn at anyone except when in real danger. And a good thing, too. It would impede progress, it would be in restraint of trade, almost as bad as all those strict environmental laws.
     Your car is indeed your symbol of freedom, and it's your inalienable right to do anything you want in it. But I have my inalienable rights, too, and I'm a civil rights poet who believes in slow, leisurely drives about the city or on the freeway. I love to drive as slowly as possible. The slower I drive, the more poetic it is. Like watching a film in slow motion after smoking a joint, and everything takes on a profound symbolic quality. I love to kick back and enjoy the lovely landscape. This always infuriates the bobo on the cell phone behind me who by now is giving me the finger and blasting me with his klaxon. But the more this dude rages, the slower I drive. How can I tell him that the great epic poem I'm writing is every bit as important as that startup dot-commie he's rushing to meet?

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(New Directions Publishers)

(New Directions Publishers)

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